Why Governments should Reject Land Commodification Efforts Orchestrated by the World Bank and the United States

Nov 17, 2020

Source: World Rainforest Movement

Frederic Mousseau
Policy Director, The Oakland Institute

The development narrative continues to be revived despite its role in driving the current crisis and the millions of livelihoods it has destroyed through displacement and dispossession. The interests of the United States, with its inordinate financial and political power over institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, play a prominent role.

The COVID-19 virus has for some time eclipsed the escalating climate and environmental crisis facing the world. Alarming rates of deforestation, desertification, environmental degradation, and pollution continue to threaten the biodiversity of our planet as well as the health and livelihoods of billions.

Yet, instead of taking meaningful action, governments, corporations, and international institutions are actually “doubling-down,” wanting to exploit more land through a euphemism-based narrative of putting it to “productive use” in the name of economic “progress” and “development.” All over the world, governments are pressed to invite international investors to exploit more land and resources for logging, ranching, plantations for oil palm, timber and other crops, as well as mining, oil and gas.

However, an obstacle to this expansion has been the land tenure regimes prevailing in many countries and the rights they provide to the people living on the coveted lands. As much as 65 percent of the world’s land area is still stewarded by communities under customary systems. (1) Indigenous people and local communities have been proven to be effective stewards of their land, managed under a variety of communal and collective tenure systems. Traditional Indigenous territories cover 22 percent of the world’s land surface, which contain a remarkable 80 percent of the global biodiversity. (2) Many formerly colonized countries have adopted dual systems of land tenure that recognize customary land laws while also establishing that all land is owned by the state. (3) This situation is seen as a constraint for investors and businesses. As put by the World Bank, “undocumented [land] rights pose challenges and risks to investors,” (4) and in the case of Africa, the continent is “held back by land ownership confusion.” (5)

Driving Dispossession

A recent report by the Oakland Institute entitled Driving Dispossession: The Global Push to “Unlock the Economic Potential of Land (6), details the various ways by which governments – willingly or under the pressure of financial institutions and so-called donor countries– attempt to privatize land and make it available for exploitation. These include land reforms, changes in laws and regulations, use of new technology for land registration, as well as the removal of safeguards in place to protect Indigenous People and the environment.

Importantly, the report shows that US interests play a prominent role in these efforts through a variety of channels. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US government entity with the stated mission to “reduce poverty through growth,” has a documented history of pushing countries to transfer land from family farmers to investors for industrial agriculture. In Sri Lanka, the MCC compact intends to map and record up to 67 percent of the country to “promote land transactions that could stimulate investment and increase its use as an economic asset.”

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  1. Rights and Resources Initiative. Who Owns the World’s Land? A global baseline of formally recognized indigenous and community land rights. September 2015. (accessed July 8, 2018).
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization. “6 ways indigenous peoples are helping the world achieve #ZeroHunger.” (accessed March 25, 2020). Customary tenure systems take a multitude of forms, which might reflect the systemic issues in societies, such as gender and minority group discrimination. But the goal of so-called land reforms undertaken by governments around the world is not designed to address these systemic issues.
  3. Mousseau, F. The Highest Bidder Takes it All: The World Banks Scheme to Privatize the Commons, released by The Oakland Institute as part of the Our Land Our Business campaign, made up of 280 organizations worldwide, demanding an end to the Enabling Business of Agriculture program
  4. UNCTAD & World Bank. Respecting Land Rights and Averting Land Disputes. Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) Knowledge Into Action Note, no. 11. 2018. (accessed January 8, 2019).
  5. World Bank: Africa held back by land ownership confusion.” BBC, July 23, 2013. (accessed January 7, 2019)
  6. The Oakland Institute, Driving Dispossession: The Global Push to “Unlock” the Economic Potential of Land, 2020.